On August 22, 2014, the Cathedral Basilica of St Joseph in San Jose honored the five hundredth birthday of St. Teresa of Avila with a grand concert. Narrator Carolyn Graves read excerpts from the saint’s writings between performances by various artists. After opening with a procession from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, the Teresian Singers, accompanied by the Orchestra of St. James, sang a refreshing rendition of Laureen Grady’s Mothering God.
Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick followed it with a version of César Franck’s Panis Angelicus in which she was accompanied by harp, cello, and organ. The overtones of her magnificent voice blended delightfully with the cello obbligato. The Teresian Singers returned with the more modern Virgin of Solitude by Carmelite nun, Claire Sokol. Heidi Lehwalder’s harp provided a bit of lighter dance music by Carlos Salzedo before we heard another of Sokol’s deeply religious pieces, the powerful Living Water.
After the Teresian Strings played the Preludium to Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Zajick, known so well for her Italian operatic roles, sang Verborgenheit (Solitude), one of Hugo Wolf’s Mörike Lieder. The singer asks the world to simply “Let her be,” so the words fit this program perfectly. The mezzo sang it with a tapestry of vocal color and controlled emotion that left the audience wanting to hear more lieder from her in the future.
Sokol’s Nada Te Turbe (Let Nothing Disturb You) for women’s chorus with orchestra and solo guitar and Edgar Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Zajick’s brand new composition. The opera scene was entitled Roads to Zion. Performers were: Dolora Zajick, mezzo-soprano; Ya-Li Lee Cheng, soprano; Anthony Elliott, cello; and Joseph Adam, piano. Joel Revzen conducted the Teresian Singers and the Orchestra of St. James Cathedral. The opening phrases of Part I The Soul Yearns, reminded the audience of Teresa’s converso heritage. (Some of the saint’s ancestors were Jewish). As Teresa, the mezzo-soprano sang of a religious experience while the Teresian Singers added excerpts from Psalm 84.
Zajick’s music is melodic, distinctively original, and replete with accessible twenty-first century harmony. The central part of this opera scene, an orchestral interlude entitled A Soul Takes Flight, created an impressionistic atmosphere of floating celestial sound. The finale, A Soul Returns, reminded the listener that today’s believers are the representatives of Christ. For Christians and non-Christians alike, this music created an intense experience. Its impressive orchestration and unified architectural design made it a most fascinating piece.
If this work is indicative of Zajick’s compositional achievement, it certainly whets the appetite to hear more. Although the concert concluded with an excerpt from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the thirteenth century Christo Psallat Ecclesia (Christ Sings Psalms to the Church), it was the music of Roads to Zion that remained in the minds of the audience as they left the concert.
Cast and production information:
Composer and Mezzo-Soprano, Dolora Zajick; Composer, Claire Sokol, OCD; Soprano, Ya-li Lee Cheng; Narrator, Carolyn Graves; Stage Director, Paul Kiernan; Organist and Pianist, Joseph Adam; Harpist, Heidi Lehwalder; Guitarist, Matthew Fish. Conductors, Joel Revzen, James Savage, and Anthony Elliott; Orchestra of St. James Cathedral of Seattle. Teresian Singers (Women’s Chorus), Chorus of Carmelite Nuns.